Big Ten Basketball: Breaking Down the 2014 Conference Title Race

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2014

Big Ten Basketball: Breaking Down the 2014 Conference Title Race

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    As expected, the Big Ten regular-season conference race is coming down to the wire, with five teams still in contention for the regular-season crown. Michigan's remarkable one-point overtime victory over Purdue on Wednesday was a major boost to the Wolverines' title hopes, but the champion may not be determined until the final game.

    Five conference teams are ranked in this week's Associated Press Top 25 poll, and those five (Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State) seem to have NCAA tournament berths locked up. Two others, Nebraska and Minnesota, remain in the hunt for NCAA tournament bids, and the conference tournament will have a lot to say about their postseason chances.

    Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan each held the label of conference favorite at various points during the season. We will attempt to break down how things may play out in the final few days of conference play.

Where We Stand

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    With less than two weeks left, five teams still have a mathematical chance to win or share the Big Ten regular-season title: Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State. Nebraska was eliminated from title contention with its loss to Illinois on Wednesday.

    The role of Big Ten favorite has changed hands several times during the season.

    Michigan State was ranked No. 1 in the country the first week of December and looked like the class of the Big Ten at the time. But by Jan. 6, Ohio State and Wisconsin were undefeated and ranked No. 3 and No. 4 in the country, respectively, and they seemed to be the ones to beat.

    However, Michigan is in control at the moment, thanks in large part to Wednesday's thrilling 77-76 overtime victory over Purdue. Unranked as of Jan. 13, the Wolverines head into Thursday's action atop the standings with a 12-3 conference record with three regular-season games left. Michigan State (11-4) is just a game behind the Wolverines, with Wisconsin (10-5) one game in back of the Spartans.

    Iowa and Ohio State technically are still in the running, but they're 3.5 and 3.0 games back in the loss column, respectively. A lot of things would have to fall into place to give either a share of a conference title.

    Wisconsin is the hottest Big Ten team at the moment, but the Badgers' title hopes were dealt a severe blow when Glenn Robinson III hit the game-winning basket at the buzzer, giving Michigan its one-point victory over Purdue on Wednesday.

    Had Michigan lost, Wisconsin would have been just a game out of first place. Instead, the Badgers are two back with three games left. They remain a strong contender for the Big Ten tournament title, however.

The Favorite

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    Michigan retained the role of favorite by rallying from a 19-point deficit to beat Purdue in overtime. If the Wolverines had lost that road game to a Purdue team that is now 5-10 in the conference, they would have dropped into a tie for first place. Plus, their spirits would have sagged after losing a tight game so critical to their title chances.

    Instead, Glenn Robinson III's game-winning shot enabled them to retain a one-game lead and a positive outlook, with a favorable schedule remaining.

    Michigan was not even in the Big Ten title discussion in mid-December. The Wolverines were 6-4 after losing to Arizona on Dec. 14, and that turned out to be the final game of the season for preseason All-American Mitch McGary, who is out with a back problem and unlikely to return this season.

    Sophomore guard Caris LeVert, who was a non-factor as a freshman, has filled the scoring void left by McGary's absence. He and guard Nik Stauskas have provided both inside and outside scoring, helping the Wolverines win their first eight conference games.

    Michigan is an outstanding shooting team and relies on making three-pointers. The Wolverines are not a great defensive team, however. They rank last in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage defense and are near the bottom in forced turnovers.

    The Wolverines have been less dominant in recent games, but their two victories over Michigan State showed they are title-worthy. The nine-point win over the Spartans on Feb. 23 put Michigan alone in first place.

    The Wolverines' clutch win over Purdue, when they overcame a 13-point halftime deficit, showed they may have enough toughness to finish it off.

    Because Michigan is alone in first place and because its three remaining games against Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana are all against teams with losing conference records, the Wolverines must be considered the favorites for the regular-season title.

    If Michigan finishes alone in first, it would be its first outright regular-season Big Ten title since 1986, although the Wolverines shared the crown with two other teams in 2012.

    The conference tournament could be a different story for the Wolverines, though.

The Biggest Threat to Michigan

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    Michigan State has been plagued by injuries much of the season. But the Spartans are almost completely healthy now and are still within striking distance. They pose the biggest threat to Michigan.

    Power forward Adreian Payne missed seven games with a foot injury. Point guard Keith Appling missed three games with a wrist injury that continues to bother him. Versatile swingman Branden Dawson has missed the past nine games with a broken hand, and the Spartans went 4-5 during Dawson's absence.

    However, Payne and Appling are back, and Dawson might return for the Spartans' March 1 game against Illinois. Presumably, Dawson will be available for the March 6 game against Iowa and the March 9 game against Ohio State that wrap up the regular season. Because Dawson's chief assets are rebounding and defense, the rust from inactivity may not affect him as much as it would some other players.

    This is a Michigan State team that was ranked No. 1 in the country for several weeks early in the season when its roster was intact. The Spartans shoot the ball well, and they lead the Big Ten in field-goal percentage defense.

    The Spartans' remaining schedule is the most challenging of the conference contenders, with two ranked teams (Iowa and Ohio State) representing their final two opponents.

    However, Michigan State has the horses, the experience, the toughness and the coach (Tom Izzo) to close out the season with three straight wins. That could be enough to share the conference title.

Other Contenders

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    Wisconsin is the only team with a realistic chance of catching Michigan and Michigan State, and even the Badgers are no better than a long shot to earn a share of the regular-season title at this point. Michigan's overtime victory over Purdue may have signaled the death knell for the Badgers' title chances.

    The Badgers' title bid was probably doomed by a midseason slump, when they lost five of six games following a 16-0 start. On the morning of Feb. 2, Wisconsin was 4-5 in the conference and appeared to be hopelessly behind Michigan, which was 8-0 at that time, and Michigan State, which was 8-1.

    However, Wisconsin has bounced back since then and has won six straight games, including three against ranked teams. If Michigan's Glenn Robinson III had not made his game-winning shot against Purdue on Wednesday, the Badgers would be just one game out of first place. Instead, they are two back with just three to play.

    A fundamentally sound and balanced  team that shoots the ball well, makes few mistakes and controls tempo effectively, Wisconsin is playing as well as anyone in the conference at the moment. Guard Ben Brust may have broken out of his shooting slump in the comeback win over Indiana on Tuesday, and his shooting woes had been the Badgers' only worry in recent games.

    The Badgers may be the favorites in the Big Ten tournament.

    Iowa looked like a title contender a week ago, but Tuesday's loss to Minnesota was the second straight defeat for the Hawkeyes and probably ended their hopes for a championship. The Hawkeyes rely on their depth to overwhelm opponents, and depth becomes less of an issue at this stage of a season.

    Ohio State has won six of its last seven games and has come out of a midseason slump, much like Wisconsin did. The Buckeyes are still limited offensively, though, and probably are too far behind at this point to win a title.

    Nebraska started Big Ten play 0-4, which probably ruined their regular-season title hopes. But, next to Wisconsin, the Cornhuskers had been the hottest team in the conference, having won five in a row and seven of their last eight. But that was before Nebraska lost on Wednesday to Illinois, eliminating the Cornhuskers from title contention and hurting their chances for an NCAA tournament berth.

Biggest Games Remaining

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    Five key games highlight the final few days of the Big Ten regular season:


    Minnesota at Michigan, March 1

    The Gophers are coming off a victory over Iowa and need another notable win in their bid for an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament. This is the Wolverines' toughest remaining regular-season game, and it is pivotal to their title hopes.


    Iowa at Michigan State, March 6

    The Spartans won the first meeting in overtime and cannot afford a slip-up at home against the Hawkeyes, who are desperate to regain their top form heading into the postseason.


    Indiana at Michigan, March 8

    The Hoosiers handed Michigan its first conference loss back on Feb. 2, beating the Wolverines by 11 points. Depending on how things play out, the Wolverines might be able to claim their first outright regular-season conference title since 1986 with a victory.


    Michigan State at Ohio State, March 9

    Michigan State handed Ohio State its first loss of the season, in overtime, back on Jan. 7. But that was at Michigan State. This one is in Columbus, Ohio, and is the teams' final regular-season game. The Spartans may need to win the game to earn a share of the regular-season title.


    Wisconsin at Nebraska, March 9

    Two of the Big Ten's hottest teams have their only regular-season meeting in the regular-season finale. The game conceivably could have title implications for the Badgers, and it will have an impact on the Badgers' NCAA tournament seed. Nebraska will need a win to enhance its chances of getting an NCAA berth. The winner will be viewed as a viable contender in the conference tournament.

Michigan Will Win the Big Ten If…

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    Michigan will win the regular-season title if it doesn't choke.

    The Wolverines no longer have the steady hand of 2013 National Player of the Year Trey Burke at the point guard spot. And they no longer have the physical inside presence of center Mitch McGary to snatch offensive rebounds and intimidate opposing drivers.

    The schedule is in the Wolverines' favor, but this is still a young team that has experienced some ups and downs. The Wolverines will be favored in all three of their remaining games, but a lack of consistent defense and a reliance on outside shooting, especially by Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, make them vulnerable to an upset.

    Poise will be the key issue for Michigan. The Wolverines showed poise against Purdue on Wednesday, when they pulled out an unlikely victory. On the other hand, the Wolverines nearly lost that pivotal game to a team that was significantly inferior and had less motivation.

Michigan State Will Win the Big Ten If…

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    If Michigan has any type of slip-up, Michigan State is poised to step in a steal away the conference title.

    If swingman Branden Dawson returns and is able to make an impact despite his layoff, the Spartans are capable of winning their final three games, even though two are against ranked teams, including the finale on the road against Ohio State.

    The experience of senior point guard Keith Appling and senior power forward Adreian Payne as well as the renowned Michigan State toughness should give the Spartans an edge in pressure situations.

    If Michigan State plays as well as it did at the beginning of the season, it has a pretty good chance of finishing with at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship.

What the Contenders Must Do to Win

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    Wisconsin is the only other team with a reasonable chance to earn a share of the Big Ten title, and its opportunity depends more on what other teams do than what the Badgers do.

    If Michigan and Michigan State both stumble, Wisconsin has a shot. The Badgers are playing well at the moment, and they shoot well enough and have enough scoring balance to win their remaining three games.

    Michigan would have to lose two of its final three games and Michigan State would have to lose once to give Wisconsin an opportunity to share a title. That's unlikely, but certainly not impossible.

    If those two things occur, and Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky plays as well as he has in recent games, the Badgers could earn a share of the crown. None of Wisconsin's remaining opponents (Penn State, Purdue and Nebraska) is ranked, although the finale at Nebraska will be a significant challenge.

    If a near miracle occurs, Ohio State or Iowa could earn a share of the regular-season title. Michigan would have to lose all three of its remaining games and Michigan State would have to lose two of its last three. Even then, Ohio State or Iowa would have win all their remaining games while Wisconsin loses one.

    Ohio State is on a roll and seems capable of winning its remaining games if it can muster enough offense. Iowa has struggled lately, but sudden turnarounds have been common in the Big Ten this season.


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    The prediction is that Michigan, which has been inconsistent the past few weeks, will lose one of its remaining three games. Meanwhile, Michigan State, which is getting stronger and healthier, will win its final three contests, even though its schedule is more difficult than Michigan's.

    As a result, Michigan and Michigan State will finish tied for the Big Ten regular-season title.

    Wisconsin will win its final three games and finish just a game behind the leaders.

    Nebraska will finish a few games ahead of Minnesota in the standings, but Minnesota will get an NCAA tournament bid, and the Cornhuskers will not. A loss to Wisconsin in the finale will ruin Nebraska's NCAA chances.

    Predicted order of finish:

    1. (tie) Michigan and Michigan State

    3. Wisconsin

    4. Ohio State

    5. (tie) Iowa and Nebraska

    7. Minnesota

    8. Indiana

    9. Purdue

    10. Northwestern

    11. Penn State

    12. Illinois